Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Supermarket Horror

     [Today, some fiction. It’s been said that there’s no such thing as a worthless life – that anyone can serve as a warning to others. Some such warnings require more than a whisper to make themselves heard. – FWP]

     Darren disliked shopping. He acknowledged the necessity, of course – no one dislikes it so much that he’d rather starve to death – but he approached each necessary trip to the local supermarket in a mood that compounded equal parts resignation and resentment.

     In all candor, Darren disliked leaving his house for any reason. It was the reason for his choice of residence and occupation. Leaving the house in which he lived entirely alone brought with it the possibility of human contact. Having to deal with other people, no matter how briefly or formally, was something he avoided above all else.

     It wasn’t that Darren disliked people. He was just a natural isolate. He lived a rich interior life, and he preferred not to allow the agendas and concerns of others to disturb it. But because he was tall and handsome, when he was out and about people tended to gravitate to him, and it messed him up. The consequences could ruin the rest of a perfectly good day.

     Unfortunately for Darren, the district in which he’d chosen to live had no supermarkets that delivered. As large as his pantry was and as sedulously as he kept it filled, needs for items he couldn’t store kept cropping up, forcing him out of his comfortable solitude and into the company of others.

     It was an irritation for which he could find no analgesic. He’d tried doing his shopping during the wee hours, but it proved unsatisfactory. The market was never empty. Worse, the typical two AM shopper was either a fortyish divorcee or a member of the underwear-on-head crew. Both sorts were far too friendly. He’d have offered a neighbor’s teenage kid money to shop for him, but that would have required him to interact with his neighbors. The mere thought caused him to shudder.

     Resenting the necessity all the way, he donned a jacket against the spring breeze, drove to the nearest supermarket, parked well away from the building, and crept as stealthily as he could manage toward the generally dispreferred side entrance. He selected a cart from the meager pile there, marshaled his resolve, and strode into the store.

     He immediately began to plot course through the aisles that would minimize both his time in the store and his encounters with others, but he was halted before he’d gone ten feet inside.

     “Excuse me, sir?”

     Darren was jolted out of his strategizing. Before him stood a young man in the store’s livery. The young fellow had plainly addressed him. Indeed, he hadn’t been there until that very instant.

     I’ve been intercepted. What for?

     “Yes?” Darren strove to imbue the monosyllable with a clear don’t waste my time with your special offers message.

     The young man was unperturbed. “What’s your name, please?”

     Darren frowned. “Why do you want to know?”

     “For your badge.” The young man held up a quick-stick label of the sort used for temporary identification badges.

     Darren’s discomfort rose several notches. “But why do I need a badge?”

     “It’s something we’re trying out.” The young man waved at a small knot of other shoppers who were conversing in far too amiable a fashion. “We’re hoping to make shopping a more social sort of activity. There aren’t many ways for people around here to get to know each other. If we know one another’s names, we might start conversations, discover common interests, maybe even become friends.” He smiled winningly. “Foster a sense of community.

     Darren smiled formally. “I’ll pass, thanks.” He tried to move on.

     “But sir,” the young man pressed, “you’d be the only shopper without one!” His voice dropped to a murmur. “Think how conspicuous that would make you.”

     Between the devil and the deep blue sea.

     “All right,” Darren said. He steeled himself. “It’s Darren.”

     The young man drew DARREN on the label in large, shaky block letters and, incredibly, slapped the thing onto Darren’s left lapel without so much as a by-your-leave. “Have a nice day!”

     And so the ordeal began.

     No matter where in the store he was, Darren was repeatedly accosted by persons – mostly women – who greeted him by his name as if they were old school chums. Worse, they started to chat. They’d talk about anything and everything. They asked him how he was doing, what he liked about the store and the neighborhood, inquired into his trade and how he liked it, nattered about how friendly everyone was that day, and much else. He tried to restrict his answers to grunts and monosyllables. He asked nothing of his interlocutors and tried repeatedly to excuse himself so that he could finish his shopping and get out of the store. Nothing he did could free him swiftly enough from their clutches. They turned what ought to have been a twenty-minute irritation into an hour of torture with their endless shallow sallies at unwanted and unsolicited intimacy.

     It didn’t end at the checkout. The clerk there greeted him cheerily and started yet another pointless chat – this time, about her cat’s hairball problem. Darren said nothing the whole time. He bagged his goods as speedily as he could, threw a wad of twenties at the startled clerk without looking at the store receipt, and pressed for the exits at warp speed. His pell-mell flight nearly occasioned a fatal collision with a short, fat woman in a headscarf and yoga clothes whose two carts were filled to overflowing with junk foods of every variety.

     He managed to get home and get his goods unpacked before giving way to the shakes.

     The terrors continued throughout the spring and into the summer.

     The supermarket’s policy proved popular. People liked knowing the names of other shoppers. Some said it transformed the shopping experience from a begrudged necessity into a positive, enjoyable outing. Others said it reduced their wariness about those around them. Other stores, first those in the supermarket’s little strip mall, then elsewhere in the region, adopted the policy, one after another.

     Darren was at wits’ end. He disliked having to leave his house under normal circumstances. The new plague of neighborly amicability made him dread it. His shopping trips came to loom larger and more distasteful than an appointment for a colonoscopy. He began to think seriously about moving, and half-seriously about moving to a place where no one spoke English.

     It took him many weeks and much hard thought before he stumbled upon the countermeasure.

     Darren smiled at his reflection in his bedroom mirror. The suit hung precisely as it should. The tie was just the right shade of eye-scorching red. The briefcase was iconic, a perfect totem object for the role he was to play. He nodded, squared his shoulders, and set out on a course that would change history. Well, local history, anyway.

     The usual pile of carts heaped like four-wheeled jackstraws beckoned to him. He hefted his briefcase and walked past them without breaking stride, directly into the store. And there before him stood the young employee who’d greeted him on his initial encounter with badge-dom.

     The young man was clearly puzzled. “Don’t you need a cart, sir?”

     Darren smiled and shook his head. “Not today.”

     “Well, a handbasket, then?” The young man gestured at a small pile of nested handbaskets.

     Another shake of the head. “May I have my badge, please? The name’s Darren.

     Still puzzled, the young man scrawled his name on a badge, again in block letters. Darren quickly plucked it from his fingers, applied it to his left lapel, and strode into the aisles to introduce the store’s management and his neighbors to the depths of remorse.

     His first victim-to-be was a middle-aged woman who stood alone in the produce section, seemingly straining to choose between two bags of grapes. He approached her in a state of venomous glee. she looked up at him, noted his lapel badge, and smiled. His smile was the more piercing for being entirely unholy. She was about to issue a greeting when he pre-empted.

     “Good morning, Sarah,” he said in a tone that dripped Pennsylvania crude. “My name is Darren and I’m with Midwest Assurances.” He swung his briefcase up between them and popped the catches. “May I acquaint you with our twenty-three varieties of life coverage, any one of which is easily tailored to your individual needs?”

     Sarah’s friendly smile became a mask of horror. She screamed.

     The store was utterly empty not ten minutes afterward.


     Copyright © 2018 Francis W. Porretto



I. LOVE. IT. Well done.

Reminds me of a time in college when a Wiccan friend was relating how he'd constantly be pestered by the neighborhood Jehovah's Witnesses.

Finally, he threw on his ceremonial robes, stuck a copy of Norse mythology under his belt, and pounded on their door. "Hi, I'm from Odin's Witnesses; would you like to take Odin into your life?"

They never bothered him again.

Linda Fox said...

You are an evil man.

Reminds me of my father-in-law. A Mormon appeared on his doorstep, and he invited him in cheerfully. Once he had sat the young men down, he asked, "How many?"

Puzzled, they replied, "How many what?"

"How many wives can I get?"

They were horrified, and said, "Only one, sir."

"Then why would I want to join your group?"

They did not come again.


Wasn't me. I'm as vanilla as they get.

HE, OTOH, looked the part. Gaunt look, shoulder-length hair, goatee...